Issue 30

Vegan Vs. Paleo

Vegan Vs. Paleo

If you’ve hosted a dinner party recently, this may sound familiar.

“Will there be a vegan option?”

“Should I bring a gluten-free alternative?”

“Is this grass-fed beef?”

Now more than ever, people are rethinking what they eat. Gone are the days of simple dinners with a protein in the center of the plate, a starch and a vegetable on the side. From vegetarian and vegan to gluten-free to the Paleolithic (paleo) diet, there are many popular and varied food ideologies. There are often members of a single social group or family with extremely different views on food.

Interestingly, two of the most popular food ideologies right now, vegan and paleo, are at completely different ends of the food ideology spectrum. Vegans consume a mostly plant-based diet, excluding any animal products, such as meat, dairy and eggs. Paleo, on the other hand, is a diet based on what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate millions of years ago, before the rise of agriculture. People who eat paleo consume mostly vegetables, grass-fed beef, free-range chicken and nuts and seeds. Proponents of the paleo diet believe that many of the health problems we face today, including the obesity epidemic, are caused by eating too many processed foods and refined sugars.

On a typical Sunday afternoon, you can find Jeni Chase in her kitchen, preparing food for her family to eat all week. Chase is a member of Paleo Omaha (

“I like to do a weekly cook-up,” Chase said. “I’ll cook up a bunch of food at once and have meals for the week.”

Chase decided to try the paleo diet at the beginning of 2011. She had been suffering from a myriad of health problems, including the hypothyroidism and acne she had battled for most of her life. In the beginning, she took it slow.

“I’d allow myself a cheat day at the end of the week. If I ate well all week, I could have a whole pizza that day if I wanted.” Chase said, laughing.

On her weekly “cheat day” Chase would allow herself to eat the non-paleo foods she craved. She began to notice that, while she felt great during the week when she was eating paleo, after she indulged on her cheat day she’d feel tired, bloated and pretty miserable.

“That was a really great way to transition to paleo,” Chase said. “Because when I did that I realized that on my cheat days I felt awful.”

It wasn’t long before Chase realized how different she felt when eating paleo. She decided to go “whole hog,” in her own words. Since then she’s lost 40 pounds and her acne has cleared up.

“My endocrinologist isn’t very surprised,” Chase said. “He just says, ‘keep doing what you’re doing!’”

So, what does a typical day of food look like if you’re eating paleo? For most, it’s something like this:

Breakfast might be a couple eggs and sautéed greens. It could also be leftovers from dinner the night before. Breakfast, said Chase, is one of the hardest meals for beginning paleo eaters to adapt to, because unlike the typical American breakfast which is heavily carbohydrate based (think cold cereal, bagels, toast, etc.), a typical paleo breakfast is often more meat centered.

“It’s not as low carb as Atkins,” Chase said. “But you do end up eating fewer carbohydrates because you’re not eating all those bread products. My blood sugar is much more stable now as a result.”

Lunch and dinner center around healthy proteins like grass-fed beef, free-range chicken or wild-caught fish and fresh, seasonal vegetables. Nuts and seeds are a typical snack between meals.

Chase said it’s easy to shop paleo in Omaha. She does some of her shopping at grocery stores, some from local farms and gets a lot of produce from farmer’s markets and indoor farmer’s markets like Tomato Tomato. Some of her favorite local farms are Chisholm Family Farm in Elmwood, Neb., and Honey Creek Farms in Lincoln.

“It’s quite easy because of the resources we have in this area,” Chase said of local farms. “As long as you’re willing to put in the time to cook your own meals.”

Those who eat paleo tend to prepare meals at home more often than visit restaurants, simply because it is hard to know the source of your food at a typical restaurant. Both Chase and another paleo advocate I spoke with, however, said that Omaha has many paleo-friendly restaurants. Some of their favorites included Mark’s Bistro, Lot 2 and M’s Pub.

At the other end of the food spectrum is veganism. John McDevitt runs the meetup group Vegan Omaha ( He went vegan nearly 10 years ago.

“I always tell people, I went vegan for my cat.” McDevitt joked.

In all seriousness, McDevitt said he went vegan for both health reasons and ethical concerns. He ate a vegetarian diet for two years before transitioning to veganism.

“I was already used to not eating dairy, ordering pizza without cheese, for example,” McDevitt said. “So it wasn’t that hard.”

McDevitt started Vegan Omaha in January 2008 as a way to connect with other vegans in the community. Fewer than five people attended the first meeting. Now, there are often thirty or forty people in attendance. Their most recent meetup was December 16 at Crystal Jade.

For vegans, a typical breakfast might be a green smoothie or tofu scramble or even something as simple as whole grain toast with almond butter. For lunch and dinner, a healthy vegan meal should be mostly plant-based and may include beans, tofu or hearty root vegetables.

Some of veganism’s detractors claim that the diet can be unhealthy because some who are used to eating meat turn to highly processed meat-like products to fill that void. Think soy “chicken” nuggets. Another concern is malnutrition or deprivation of important nutrients, like vitamin B-12 which most people get from eating animal meat. McDevitt said it’s all about trial and error and finding a balance.

“You can definitely be an unhealthy vegan,” McDevitt said. “You can eat candy all day and it may be vegan. But as long as you’re eating whole grains, vegetables and fruit, I think it’s healthier overall.”

Although some see Nebraska as a meat-eater’s paradise, McDevitt said that he does not think it’s difficult to be vegan in Omaha. Many restaurants, he said, are now offering at least one or two vegan menu options. Vegan Omaha’s website has a comprehensive restaurant directory. Among McDevitt’s favorites are Amsterdam Falafel and Crystal Jade.

McDevitt said that one of his favorite things about being a vegan is the diverse community.

“The great thing about veganism is all the different kinds of vegans – be it for environmental, ethical or health reasons,” McDevitt said. “I never really thought about the environmental impact of raising cattle, for example. So, it’s not just one thing. There’s a bunch of different things that draw people to veganism.”

At the end of the day, there is no right or wrong diet. Even two food ideologies as juxtaposed as paleo and vegan share some common ground, like a concern for the environment and better, more humane farming practices.

“We have amazing resources in Nebraska,” Chase said. “So many farmers are doing it right and we need to support them.”
Another tip that both Chase and McDevitt shared for those who are just starting out with a new diet, take it slow.

“It’s trial and error,” McDevitt said. “The internet is an amazing tool for research. There are a lot of good websites and support communities.”

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